It’s an unfortunate fact that we live in anxious times – and young people appear to be increasingly affected. We could attempt to guess why, (and everything from social media to the looming threat of climate change seems to play a part) but whatever the root cause, we are faced with a situation where the number of children seeking help from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in England has more than doubled over the past two years.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues, and according to Anxiety UK seventy five per cent of all mental illnesses will have developed by the time a person is eighteen. A poll by the Insight Network of thirty eight thousand UK students also found “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm amongst university-aged adults.
Helping children and young people cope with mental illness, and supporting them from a young age to help prevent its development, is an ever pressing concern – and one where yoga is recognised as a useful tool. Through the practice of yoga, children and young adults can learn to manage negative feelings and access a healthy method of stress relief, providing a source of calm they can rely on throughout their lives.
Reduced feelings of anxiety, stress and depression
We might think of childhood and the days before bills, work and responsibilities as carefree, but young people can often find themselves contending with some pretty profound worries. Whether it’s conflict at home, problems with body image, academic stress or adolescent concerns regarding relationships and sexuality, young life is often far from simple.
While some childhood fears and teenage angst is normal, sometimes this can grow into something more serious, and young people can benefit from a method that allows them to manage their stress and break out of negative thought patterns. Yoga for anxiety improves people’s wellbeing by helping them to quickly recover from the physiological experience of stress (which includes an increased heart rate and agitated thinking) and providing an immediate form of stress relief through the practice of breathing exercises.
One study, which took place in a US elementary school and involved children who were eight to nine years old, found that children who took part in small-group yoga and mindfulness activities for 8 weeks experienced significant improvements in their emotional and psychosocial quality of life compared to the control group. Another suggested that a yoga program helped children to better cope with difficult life events, building their resilience to stress.
The increased feelings of happiness and lessened anxiety associated with practicing yoga appears to have its roots in the changes yoga creates in our brain chemistry. Researchers from Boston University’s medical school discovered that people who perform yoga have higher levels of the amino acid GABA in their system, which is linked to greater contentment and a sense of calm. There is also evidence of changes in brain structure that suggest a greater ability to deal with stress and bolstered learning and judgement, including an increase in volume of the hippocampus.
A randomised controlled trial of 37 high school students found that 16 weeks of yoga classes improved the participants ability to regulate their emotions, when compared to normal physical education. Yoga and mindfulness gives us an insight into our feelings, and allows us to understand ourselves better. With little life experience to fall back on, practicing yoga is a way for children to learn about themselves and notice the way they think, increasing their self-awareness.
A key principle of yoga is compassion, both towards ourselves and others. Children and young people can hold themselves to impossibly high standards, frightened of letting people down and trying to live up to societal ideals they might not yet have the tools to critically analyse. Learning to be kinder to themselves is the first step in building self-esteem and entering adulthood as a confident individual, equipped with the emotional intelligence needed to successfully navigate our often stressful modern world.
This post was written by Heather Mason, who founded leading yoga therapy centre The Minded Institute and campaigns for the inclusion of yoga into the NHS through the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance.
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